Total Agrees to Buy $4B Novatek Stake, Join Arctic Project

MOSCOW (Dow Jones Newswires), March 3, 2011

French energy giant Total secured a $4 billion deal to buy a stake in Russian gas producer Novatek and to join a massive Arctic gas project, in another sign that Russia is opening up foreign investments to its vast energy resources.

The deal, announced late Wednesday, comes less than two months after U.K. oil major BP announced a $16 billion share swap arrangement and Arctic exploration venture with Russian state oil producer Rosneft.

Total agreed to pay $4 billion for a 12% share in Russia's biggest independent gas producer Novatek, to take a seat on the company's board and raise its equity stake to 19.4% within three years, the French company said. The agreement also gives Total a 20% share of Novatek's liquefied natural gas, or LNG, project in Russia's northern Yamal Peninsula.

The deal comes amid a campaign by Russia to attract increased technological knowhow from western giants as it develops complex arctic sites. The Total-Novatek collaboration also underscores the renewed interest of western oil majors in Russia in light of rising political turbulence in other key petroleum centers.

"The upheavals taking place in a number of the oil and gas producing countries now send a signal to investors to come to Russia, because it offers much safer environment for investment," said Total Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie.

"International energy companies have few alternatives to Russia if they want to get access to major new resources," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib investment bank.

The agreement was signed late Wednesday during a meeting between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and de Margerie.

Novatek aims to become a major LNG producer, with two new Arctic projects due to come on track in the coming decade--with Total now a partner in both. Privately-held Novatek has become popular with investors recently, as it grabs market share from state-held Gazprom, while gaining political support through powerful oil trader Gennady Timchenko, cofounder of Gunvor International BV, who last year increased his stake in Novatek to 23%. Timchenko is a long-time Putin acquaintance.

The deal comes amid rising momentum for the giant Yamal project and increased signs of trouble for another big Arctic project, Gazprom's Shtokman project.

Novatek plans to launch Yamal LNG in 2016 and eventually reach production of 15 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year. The Yamal project has gained momentum, after Timchenko bought into the project last year.

Apart from Total, industry titans such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell have expressed interest in the Yamal project. Novatek says it will retain a 51% stake in the project and pick minority partners this year.

Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson said Total's "experience in implementing complex oil and gas projects, as well as their global presence in LNG markets, will significantly contribute to the project's overall performance and timely implementation."

A Total spokeswoman said Thursday the French giant remains committed to Shtokman, despite the Yamal effort. The ambitious Arctic field was originally planned to start production in 2013, but has been delayed amid a glut of natural gas. A Total vice president said last month that Shtokman "looks too expensive to our taste."

Under the BP-Rosneft venture announced in mid-January, BP will garner an additional 9.5% of Rosneft, while the Russian firm will take a 5% stake in BP ordinary voting shares. Unlike the Total-Novatek venture, the BP-Rosneft tie-up has so far not announced representation on each other's board.

The BP-Rosneft deal has hit a recent obstacle, however in light of objections by Alfa-Access-Renova consortium, or AAR, the Russian shareholders in BP's other Russian venture, TNK-BP Ltd. TNK-BP's board Friday is expected to consider a plan to allow TNK-BP replace BP in the venture.

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